At least once in your life, you stood in front of a blank row in your CV template marked EXPERIENCE and felt desperate. I know I did. I was lucky enough to be ignored or turned down for an internship by literally every major advertising agency in Belgrade before a debate friend called me for an interview for what I thought was a PR agency.
5 years later I run a small creative agency of my own, after building a sucesful carreer in digital marketing. One of the quirks of working in a new, specialized industry is that there are not a lot of experienced people to recruit and hence you end up giving a lot of people their first job. We did a lot of hiring, too — at least 20 people started their careers in our department. In one hiring process we analyzed in one way or another 84 people for a managing and executive position.
All this is to say that I meet a lot of people with little experience, and it’s my job to figure out if they have what it takes to become great at what I do. Only by uncovering this talent, my agency will stay ahead of the competition, so I’m very tuned in at every interview. And if there is one feeling all these share for me it’s that they all let themselves down somewhat. Even the brilliant ones.
So here are some tips that can help you prepare for your first job interview when you have zero experience:
1. Read EVERYTHING
You know why you need experience for EVERY job nowadays? Because if you publish the job ad online you are bound to have tens if not hundreds applications. Putting an experience requirement is the easiest way for your HR department to do an initial cut.
However, we do things differently: we put a task buried in the job requirements, where the driver’s license usually goes. It’s usually a small creative case. Last job ad we did we recieved 74 aplications. Only 10 had solved the case. That was an efficient first cut!
Even if the company does not have a test, there will usually be some requirements that are off the template. These got there because HR had to ask your future team to fill in parts they did not know. You should focus on these and bring them out in your CV and cover letter / e-mail (more on this later).
Final point is that it’s a well established fact that a lot of professions use jargon to exclude outsiders. This is why you need an Oxford dictionary and a Ouija board to decipher job openings in most major corporations. Just kidding, Google’s fine, but you will think that! So Google everything in the ad. Learn as much as you can. Make assumptions and be wrong in the interview — you just need to show you worked at it and thought about it.
2. Write an e-mail
Forget everything you ever read about cover letters. In fact, forget cover letters exist. Read this passage again. If you understanding nothing, read on.
Employers can tell when you’re using a template cover letter (what?) because no sane human will say they’re a proactive dynamic team player or similar word salads. We can even tell where you insert employer specific sentences, because the sentence structure changes from robot to young person out of college.
Write an e-mail. Be cordial, but be you. We expect you to be new to this, so we’ll be very fogiving. Tell us why you thought it was a good idea to apply — even if you’ve just read an article, tell us what got you excited about it and what you thought.
3. Stalk like you’re the NSA
Now, let’s prepare for the second round of cuts, and examine what happened to the 10 we had in the last hiring we did. Our case was just to create a post for our FB page. It sounds simple enough, but bare in mind that after years of doing stuff like that we tend to have a high bar.
However, we also live in a time where self promotion is everything. Don’t believe me? Name me one campaign Garry V did without Googling! The branded self, the advertised worker and by extension the celebrity CEO are the realities of our time. Hey, I’m not writing this blog just from the kindness of my heart. Just mostly.
This means everyone leaves a trail. Go through the website, especially the blog, then Facebook page, Google / News the employer and find the employees, and then go through all of that again for each of your likely future team mates.
It may sound freaky, but you’re not suppose to say what you did, but gather little bits of information you will casully slip into the conversation like “I read that on your company’s blog” or “yes, I saw that you had a guest lecture because one of my friends liked it on Instagram”.
You’re also going to get feeling for the company — are they corporate buttoned up, very technical or casual. In our case, anyone of the 7 applicants we insantly cut could’ve seen that we couldn’t care less about motivational quotes or infographics. We even had a post about six months prior swearing we will never use motivational quotes in our campaigns.
4. Tell me about everything you did
Hopefully, you’re a self aware person. As such, you will be aware of having zero experience and this will impact your self esteem at the job interview. I doubt you can change this without becoming an insufferable overachiever types.
What you can change, though is how this makes you behave. Most people react by limiting what they say because they don’t want to imply that they believe their hobbies somehow prepare them for the job they’re interviewing for. But here is where your CV comes in.
Provide a shopping list for the interviewer — put anything that makes you stand out. I once interviewed someone who had a hillarious Twitter profile. Her interview was bombing for 15 minutes until she mentioned it by chance. I know that if you can be consistently funny on Twitter you’re likely to pick up copywriting and creative work. But she didn’t include it in the CV because most employers wouldn’t find that relevant.
When you have no experience, the interviewer is constantly trying to judge you as a person, and everyone has a different method, so just give them as much starting points as possible. I always try to find what was your creative drive, and what you build. This is because I believe that creatives by nature are restless creatures that are always making something. Be it fun YouTube videos, photography concepts, or my old bootleg production of CDs.
5. Practice skill testing
What suprises most people that come out of college is how little employers care about their formal education. In most of today’s professions higher education is just there to prove you can be disciplined enough to show up at the same place for 4 years and put yourself through discomfort in order to achieve what you want, not to qualify you for the job. Note that this kind of test IS a useful predictor of how well you’ll do in ANY profession. But employers fully accept that the will have to train you to work in theirs.
The biggest predictor of how fast you’ll pick up that training is not how much you know now, but what skills you have. And this is why most employers test for skills for entry level positions. We test for analytical skills, creative thinking, creative writing, navigating tables and graphs etc.
You can find a lot of these tests online, and while every employer adapts them, the underlying logic remains the same. Practicing won’t let you “learn the results” but it will help the conversation flow easier when you get to these questions.
And that is all I have for now. I wish you good luck, and though I know you probably feel miserable now, know that you’ll soon forget this period in life :)